The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Motherhood, and Medicine
(Graywolf Press, 2016)
Periods of waiting are a fertile time for writing. In the lull between wishing and receiving, decision-making is drawn out. Belle Boggs’s essays are dispatches from this limbo. The Art of Waiting, her debut collection, describes her five-year struggle to have a baby. Because getting pregnant doesn’t happen quickly or easily for Boggs, she questions what many of us take for granted: that we are destined to go forth, be fruitful, and multiply.
In the words of Phillip Lopate, the modern essay is a “meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution, and self-doubt.” But questioning the self is a risky business: side effects include chronic hesitation, alienation from groups, and feeling lost. Luckily, Boggs is both brave and generous—willing to hack through terra incognita and report back to the rest of us. In pursuit of self-knowledge, she mines fertility message boards, studies court cases, and visits the zoo. She weighs options and imagines alternatives. Ultimately, her ambivalence is inclusive; it legitimizes the choices she doesn’t make and celebrates other forms of love and family.
The book’s opening essay—which was first published in Orion in 2012—is raw and disarming. “It’s spring when I realize that I may never have children,” Boggs begins. Around her, animals flaunt their fertility. Cicadas fill “the air with the sound of their singular purpose: reproduction,” and Jamani, a gorilla at the North Carolina Zoo, is also expecting. Meanwhile, in the sterile waiting room of a reproductive endocrinologist’s office, Boggs “test[s] the leaf surface of a potted ficus with [her] fingernail” to check “that it is real: green, living.” She feels betrayed by her body and tortured by hope.
These emotions become Boggs’s objects of study. “Baby Fever,” the collection’s second essay, parses her biological and social conditioning. As evidence her body is made to make babies, Boggs points to the way men and women behave during ovulation: women act more flirtatiously, and men find them more attractive. This impulse to procreate is also culturally entrenched. Like the rest of us, Boggs is influenced by protonatalism, the notion that childbearing alone crowns us respectable adults. From the media’s obsession with celebrity pregnancy to TV shows like Parenthood and Modern Family, so much of our culture assumes that having children is the only route to fulfillment.
Boggs collects evidence to the contrary. In “Solstice,” she exchanges emails with a pantheon of writers and teachers, none of whom are mothers. Among these role models is Michelle Latiolais, Boggs’s professor at the M.F.A. Program in Writing at UC Irvine, who “nurtured countless younger people through her teaching.” There is also writer Cat Warren, whose adoption plans were cut short by breast cancer, after which she wrote a book about German Shepherds and cared for a late friend’s autistic son. These women stand for childfree futures that Boggs finds palatable, even attractive.
And yet, her case of baby fever is persistent, partly because it is so examined. Boggs is not naive to the hardships of pregnancy. In fact, she argues that childbearing is more dangerous than patriarchy lets on. In “In the Peanut Hospital,” she recalls taking care of her mother after an unnamed “female surgery,” a long-term consequence of giving birth. Here, she reminds us that “pregnancy is in fact a dangerous condition that tends to make women poorer and more vulnerable to violence and some diseases.” But even at her mother’s bedside, Boggs listens enviously to the cries from a maternity ward. She wants to experience what women experience everywhere: pain, joy, and paradox.
Like all honest investigations, Boggs’s risks making everything murkier. Take adoption, for instance. After three years of expensive fertility treatment, Boggs begins to think that she is destined for something else. But as she learns more about the adoption process, its moral high ground becomes less obvious. Horror stories abound: in one, a genetic father reasserted his parental rights after being released from prison; in another, a little boy comes to believe that his birth parents, who were portrayed as dead during the process, are still alive. As Mark, an adoptive parent, tells her: “‘When you get into it you think it’s kind of a pure thing, to help some little boy or girl whose parents are dead or unable to take care of them […] But of course it’s more complicated than that.’”
For Boggs, there is no escaping questions, no outthinking uncertainty. Instead, she learns to be humble and trust her instincts. She flags her decision-making as personal and never claims to speak for other people:
As complicated and risky as IVF felt to me, I worried more about getting adoption wrong—choosing the wrong country or state, the wrong agency. So I never got far in the process, never completed a home study or enrolled in a foster-care class, never formally contracted with an adoption agency or paid any fees. I still get letters in the mail from my county’s foster-care program. I recycle them guiltily but don’t ask to be taken off the list.
By enumerating what she might have done—who she might have been—Boggs honors the different ways people go about having children. She acknowledges that society is better off because other soon-to-be parents make the opposite choice.
In this sense, The Art of Waiting is neither a how-to guide nor a polemic. Rather than defend (or apologize for) the choices she makes, Boggs uses her experiences to relate to other people. She investigates the obstacles LGBT couples face when adopting; the corrupt markets of international surrogacy; and how to pay for expensive fertility treatments. She advocates family law that includes and protects as many people as possible, from adoptive children and birth mothers to same-sex couples and surrogates. In doing so, she reclaims the family as a site of progressive inquiry and change. It’s riveting.
As a young-for-my-age twenty-something, the only thing I’m trying to conceive is this essay. And yet, I found The Art of Waiting deeply absorbing, like it was written just for me. Essays are tricky this way: their apparent subjects, no matter how personal, get cracked open; inside, we discover more universal themes. Boggs’s experience of child-longing reminds us of our own desires, the virtues of letting go and the power of holding on. In every essay, she is recognizably human, attached to the future she always wanted. In the interim, she second-guesses. She waits. She writes.